by Bill Fletcher, Jr. from July 2005

In thinking through the future of the US trade union movement we should be asking ourselves certain very important questions. These questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is our analysis of the current domestic and international situation in general, but specifically, the situation facing workers?
  • What changes in the economy and in the process of work have taken place that affect workers, but also affect our abilities to organize, mobilize and be effective?
  • How do we understand the evolution of the US political state?  What does this mean for workers and their unions?
  • What do we mean when we speak of power for workers?
  • What other social movements–whether progressive or reactionary–are rising or declining?
  • How have US unions practiced trade unionism over the last 50 years? In what manner were there changes–if any at all–in this practice after Sweeney took over in 1995?
  • What has worked and what has not in the last ten years?  Do we have any idea as to why?
  • What do we need from a federation of unions? Specifically,
  • How should it make decisions?
  • Who should be included?
  • What is its role in electoral politics and legislation?
  • What is its role in organizing?
  • What is its role in member education & mobilization?
  • How do we change power relations in the USA?  What does this mean at the national and local level?
  • What is the nature of international working class solidarity in the 21st century?
  • What are the organizational and structural implications of all of this for the union movement?

These questions are not being asked.  It is interesting, however, that many of us outside of the top layers of the union bureaucracy, or outside of the union movement entirely, are posing these questions. It feels like hollering into a dark cave. All we get back is an echo.

While the leaders involved in this debate seem to feel that what they are saying is particularly profound, the arguments of both sides have failed to ignite a sense of excitement at the base.  Rather the response seems to be more of disengagement, curiosity, fear, and sometimes anger.

So, what then is the problem? Why has this debate evolved in such a mediocre manner?  I suggest to you that it has to do, fundamentally, with the ideological premises of US trade unionism, going back at least as far as Samuel Gompers. We have, in the USA, a movement that believes that the most that it can ever be is a junior partner to capital.  That is what is fascinating about the current so-called debate.  Even the more “militant” of the oppositionists conceptualize a special relationship with the enlightened wing of capital rather than any serious vision of working class power.

While some people may say that this is utopian, I would counter by suggesting that it is essential and completely relevant to our current conditions. Most of today’s union movements in the global North were shaped by the development of the so-called welfare state. They were shaped largely by the politics of the Cold War, in one manner or another, and in a situation where segments of capital believed that they needed to create an arrangement–a so-called social contract–with the organized section of the working class.  In the USA, I must say, that the leaders of organized labor cannot accept that this environment…this context…no longer exists.

Let me give you an example of the lack of an accurate analysis of the current situation.  A very prominent and progressive union leader made the statement that US organized labor needed to be more bi-partisan, politically speaking. My question is simple: what does that mean in 2005?  While I can absolutely understand and agree with the view that there should not be dependency on the Democratic Party, in the CURRENT situation, what does it mean to be bi-partisan when there is a Republican Party out to cut the throats of the working class generally and unions specifically?  Is this simply a throw-away point, or could this leader honestly believe that there is an environment that would promote bi-partisanship.

Gompers’ views came to mean that the working class could not speak in its own name.  Rather than class politics, unions adopted “special interests” politics. The task of the union was to defend the interests of its members. This narrow view of trade unionism has affected everything, ranging from inter-union cooperation to the building of alliances with community-based organizations.

This has become all the more clear in the current debate where there is no hint of a unionism linked to social transformation, but rather there exists a unionism focused almost exclusively on collective bargaining power.

Let us be clear:  at a point when trade unions are under attack by both capital and the US state, and when we are losing collective bargaining power, not to mention, the actual right to collectively bargain, rearticulating the need for collective bargaining power is important…but it is in no way revolutionary, and it is certainly not enough to address the current crisis faced by the working class.

Both sides, however, are trapped in this ideological quandary.  Neither side recognizes the relationship between neo-liberal globalization and US foreign policy.  International trade agreements are treated in isolation from US threats to the sovereignty of nations.  The so-called war against terrorism is never directly addressed, despite its impact both on civil liberties and democracy in the USA, as well as military globalization internationally.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, the AFL-CIO believed that President Bush would grasp the moment and make peace with the US working class. They believed that Bush would mutate into Franklin Roosevelt and treat the new situation as something akin to a World War II environment. This did not happen. Not only did it not happen, but the leadership of the AFL-CIO was completely paralyzed in the face of the onslaught launched on the US working class.

So, what will happen?  If there is a split or fragmentation, in this environment I suspect that there will be calls, and some actions, towards new organizing campaigns. I suspect that central labor councils will very much be hurt by the split, some hurt mortally. The acrimony will more than likely continue for quite some time.

If there is a compromise, everything will depend on the terms of the compromise.  IF there is a commitment to pursuing an internal debate about the real issues, we could see some significant changes brought about in the US union movement.  If, however, the compromise is more akin to a cease-fire, then it will only be a temporary respite.

What, however, needs to be done?  Well, unfortunately, none of the top protagonists have actually asked me this question, but since I am among friends, I will offer a few thoughts.

  • Let’s have the debate that needs to happen, using questions such as the ones that I proposed earlier.  Let us use those questions and a movement-wide debate–rather than simply a debate among the leaders–to identify the actual unities and differences within the movement.
  • Let us experiment with different forms of organization in approaching the organizing of the 21st century workforce.
  • And, here is my priority:  let us engage in a discussion that focuses on the question of working class power in the USA.  I am not speaking about bargaining power alone.  I am talking about the creation of an agenda–and a means of actualizing that agenda–that is worker-centric.  That agenda needs to be linked to a strategy that understands that unionization, as important as it is, is simply not sufficient to transform a society.  Progressive trade unionism must be linked to a progressive political practice.  Thus, we must supersede Gompers and his famous statement that …we have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests…  By “we” Gompers meant the unions, and not the working class, but leaving that aside, the working class must have STRATEGIC friends, and must recognize its STRATEGIC enemies.  It is precisely for this reason that current discussions about so-called bi-partisanship ring so hollow.

I wish that I could ask you, Canadian trade unionists, to shake some sense into the heads of US trade unionists.  Unfortunately, this is not the case, since, much like a substance abuser, one has to hit bottom and realize, on one’s own, that something must change.

For the US trade union movement, the intoxicating ‘substance’ has been the US Empire.  It has served as the narcotic of choice that has confused us and seduced us, and ultimately, paralyzed us.  This substance of choice has so confused us, that we misread structural discussions for discussions of strategy.  And, we try to craft a vision for the future, without any accountability, let alone understanding, of the past.

Here is my final point.  In a recent blog exchange, a colleague chastised me for not recognizing that the SEIU, et. al., proposals are the best solution for the US trade union movement because they will make it easier for our movement to organize.  My colleague missed the point:  the resurgence and re-formation of organized labor is about more than increased will to organize–as important as that may be.  It is about inspiring hundreds of thousands, if not millions to a cause.  In the 1930s that cause was symbolized by the uniting of the effort toward organizing the unorganized with the battle for democracy.  I actually think that the cause is much the same, only it is a 21st century variant that looks at organizing the unorganized linked to the battle for consistent democracy with a vision of power for workers in society.

Technical changes in the existing trade union movement, even with the best of intentions toward increasing organizing and political action, will only result in a shinier version of an archaic machine.  I hope that our leaders can see through the haze created by both Gompers-ism and US Empire to realize this to be the truth.

Abridged version of a presentation to the CAW Council, July 2005

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